By Stanford Friedman
King Charles III is, in a word, otherworldly. But it takes some doing to figure out exactly which other world that is. There are moments of extreme theatricality involving masks and candles and chanting; actors roaming up and down the aisles. Then there are lengthy scenes featuring pure intellectual discourse about the freedom of the press. The show is slightly futuristic, taking place just after the death of the current queen of England, yet is riddled with Shakespearean allusion. Iambic pentameter is the lingua franca. Tom Scutt’s masterly set is both a haunted castle and an homage to the bard’s circular Globe Theatre.
The dichotomy carries through to the characters as well. Transitioning from prince to king, Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is as indecisive as Hamlet and as doomed as Lear, but totally believable as a contemporary leader in a state of crisis. Princess Kate (Lydia Wilson) first shows up as eye candy on William’s arm, but proves herself to be a shrewd Lady Macbeth. Wilson delivers a blistering monologue, declaring that Kate will “Not simply help my husband in his crown/But wear one of my own.” Princess Di (Sally Scott) is a ghost offering up prophesy. And Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) is both a modern-age bro and an echo of the Harry who kept time with Falstaff in Henry IV, eager to escape royalty until each ultimately betrays his own feelings when duty calls.
Perhaps the production’s greatest strength is the impressive degree of commitment put forth by the cast. In a tale that explores a crumbling British Parliament and a monarchy that would be a farce if not based in fact, this fine ensemble (who have crossed the pond after a successful West End run) not only look the part, they are spiritually all in, and the audience, never for a moment, doubts the truth on stage. Whether or not you will enjoy this truth depends on how much you agree with the decisions, in terms of balance, made by playwright Mike Bartlett and director Rupert Goold and, of course, how much you care about British politics. The intellectual center of the play is the News Corp. phone hacking scandal that has lingered on in the press for years. Much of Act I is consumed in the debate over restrictions in the media and the give-and-take negotiating over creating a fair law to deal with it. These discussions go on a bit longer than needed, before a startling checkmate ends the act.
The emotional center, meanwhile, has little to do with the Queen’s death. Instead, it is a curious study of men and the women who love them. These relationships seem at odds with what we think we know of the real-life royal family. Camilla (Margot Leicester) is played for laughs and treated by her husband as a nobody, leaving the ghost of Diana as Charles’ voice of support. Kate is quite the schemer, helping William, and herself, into power. And Tafline Steen plays Jess, a free spirited lass who’s just not free enough to save Harry’s soul. It’s a web of dysfunction that would be quite entertaining, were it not for the unsettling feeling that, with Queen Elizabeth approaching 90, things could one day play out exactly as Bartlett has scripted it.
King Charles III – by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Rupert Goold.
WITH: Tim Pigott-Smith (Charles), Anthony Calf (Mr. Stevens), Oliver Chris (William), Richard Goulding (Harry), Nyasha Hatendi (Spencer, Nick, Sir Gordon), Adam James (Mr. Evans), Margot Leicester (Camilla), Miles Richardson (James Reiss), Tom Robertson (Coottsey, Speaker, Sir Michael), Sally Scott (Sarah, Ghost, Producer), Tafline Steen (Jess), Lydia Wilson (Kate), Protesters: Peter Bradbury, Lucas Hall, Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Gordana Rashovich, Harry Smith.
Scenic and costume design by Tom Scutt; Composer Jocelyn Pook; Lighting design by Jon Clark; Sound design by Paul Arditti; Production stage manager, Barclay Stiff. The Almeida Theater Production at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th St. (212) 239-6200, http://www.kingcharlesiiibroadway.com. Through January 31, 2016. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.